Seeing Progress

The Power of Seeing Progress

Today I’d like to share with you an incredible story about grit and determination, and why seeing progress is crucial to long-term success.

In July of 1952, Florence Chadwick set out to become the first woman to swim the San Pedro Channel, a stretch of water between Catalina Island and the California coast just south of Los Angeles. Already a world-class distance swimmer, Florence was very capable of making the 22-mile swim. It is virtually the same distance as the English Channel, which she was the first woman to swim, in both directions.

On the morning of July 4th, Florence entered the water in the early morning hours, under a blanket of heavy fog. Morning fog is common on the California coast, even in July, but it usually burns off by late morning. On this particular day, however, the fog didn’t lift at all. Every time Florence looked up, all she could see was a wall of white.

With her support boats at her side, Florence plodded along for 15 hours before asking to be pulled from the water. Her mother and trainer, riding along with her in one of the boats, urged her to keep swimming just a little longer, knowing she must be close to the shore.

Florence conceded and stayed in the water, pushing forward stroke-by-stroke, desperately hoping the shoreline would soon emerge from the fog. Unfortunately, just as it had all day, the fog stubbornly refused to yield any tangible evidence of her goal whenever she searched for it. After another full hour, Florence again asked to get in the boat. This time her trainer agreed, and they pulled her from the water.

No end in sight

When they reached the shore, Florence was devastated to learn that she’d only been half a mile from accomplishing her goal. When asked later why she had given up before reaching the shore, she responded that, since the fog had kept her from seeing the coastline, she didn’t know how close she was. It was utterly demoralizing to never know whether she was making any real progress, or how close she was to success.

Later that same year, Florence attempted the San Pedro Channel swim again. Like the first time, the morning brought a dense covering of fog on the California coast. And, like her first attempt, the fog would not lift for the remainder of the day. What was different on that day, however, is that Florence did not give up, becoming the first woman to complete the swim, even beating the men’s record by two hours!

Seeing progress

When asked what was different on her second attempt, Florence responded by saying that, although she still couldn’t see the shore, she knew it was there, and she could picture it in her mind. This story is a great illustration of how motivation is affected by the clarity of your goals and whether you are seeing progress toward them.

When you lay out your goals for the week, or the year, or your life, it’s absolutely critical that you clearly “see” what you are trying to accomplish, so you know which direction to aim to get there. As the famous saying goes, “if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there”.

But after you set good, challenging, clear goals, it’s just as important to make your progress toward them visible. As Florence Chadwick learned, seeing progress can be the difference between knowing when to push forward just a little bit longer and when to change course.

It’s a delicate balance to keep your progress fresh enough to make it relevant to your daily work, without making the process of tracking your progress a burden that distracts you from actually making progress. You should find whatever works best for you, but a weekly check-in is usually a good starting point, and you can always adjust it to find what works best for you.

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